Background and History:

Synthetic drugs are chemical compounds produced in a laboratory. They can be produced commercially by drug manufacturers for valid medical purposes and are diverted from legal channels or produced illegally in clandestine laboratories for illicit markets worldwide[1]. When produced clandestinely, synthetic drugs aim to mimic or even enhance the effects of natural illicit drugs, such as marijuana. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, many synthetic drugs originate overseas. They were first reported in the U.S. in December 2008, when a shipment of “Spice” was seized and analyzed in Dayton, Ohio.

Synthetic drugs could be addictive and pose a serious threat on the health of everyday individuals. Nevertheless, it is difficult for regulatory agencies to control or monitor synthetic drugs. Manufacturers often slightly modify the molecular structures of illegal or controlled substances to circumvent existing drug laws or labeled “not for human consumption” to mask their intended purpose and avoid Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory oversight of the manufacturing process.

Easy access, low prices and a misconception that synthetic drugs are "natural”, and harmless have likely contributed to synthetic drug abuse. Another contributing factor is the ability for synthetic drugs to circumvent standard drug tests that cannot easily detect many of the chemicals in the drug. 

Types of Synthetic Drug:

Based on their chemical composition, synthetic drugs are commonly divided into two categories:

  • Cannabinoids such as K2 and Spice. Synthetic Cannabinoids are chemicals that mimic the effect of THC, the primary psychoactive active ingredient in marijuana.
  • Stimulants such as Bath Salts. Most synthetic stimulants contain chemical compounds that mimic the effects of cocaine, LSD and methamphetamine. (Similar drugs include MDMA sometimes referred to as “ecstasy”, “molly”)

Issues with Synthetic Drugs:

  • Increasing Numbers of Synthetic Drug Abusers

The use of synthetic cannabinoids is increasing. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), poison control centers around the country received 7,779 calls about synthetic cannabinoid in 2015, more than doubling the number received in 2014. AAPCC received 304 calls about bath salts in 2010. This number climbed to 6,137 calls in 2011, but has declined each year since then, and in 2015, there were 520 reported calls to poison control centers about exposure to bath salts[3].

  • Public Health Perspective

Synthetic drugs can have severe, adverse effects on health, a high potential for addiction and abuse, and can be potentially life threatening. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 people in the U.S died from synthetic drugs in the first half of 2015---three times as many as the same period in 2014[4]. American Association of Poison Control Centers also indicated there were about 1,000 reports of synthetic drugs related hospitalizations in April 2015 alone; it was more than double the total number of cases seen in the first three months of 2015 and nearly four times the total recorded by this time last year[5].   

  • Health Effects:
  • For synthetic cannabinoids, the effects include severe agitation and anxiety, nausea, vomiting, tachycardia (fast, racing heartbeat), elevated blood pressure, tremors and seizures, hallucinations, dilated pupils, and suicidal and other harmful thoughts and/or actions.
  • For synthetic stimulants, the effects include increased heart rate and blood pressure, chest pain, extreme paranoia, hallucinations, delusions, and violent behavior, which causes users to harm themselves or others.
  • For MDMA, the effects include severe hyperthermia, dehydration, long term learning impairment, nausea, chills, sweating, involuntary jaw clenching and teeth grinding, muscle cramping, blurred vision, high blood pressure, heart failure and arrhythmia.
  • Easy Access for Youth

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has indicated that the primary users of these synthetic drugs are youth.[6] This is because products are cheap and easily accessible to teenagers online or in gas stations, and at convenience stores, smoke shops, and head shops.

  • Synthetic cannabinoids are often sold as herbal incense in convenience stores, tobacco shops, or head shops, and common brand names include “Spice”, “K2 “, Blaze”, “Red X Dawn”, “Genie” and “Zohai” etc.
  • Synthetic stimulants are often labeled as “bath salts” because they are usually white or brown crystal-like powder. The brand names include “Ivory Wave”, “Purple Wave”, “Red Dove”, “Blue Silk”, “Zoom”, “Bloom”, “Cloud Nine”, “Ocean Snow”, “Lunar Wave”, “Vanilla Sky”, “White Lightning”, “Scarface” and “Hurricane Charlie” etc.
  • MDMA is usually sold in nightclubs and at all-night dance parties ("raves"). It commonly comes in capsule or tablet form but can also be crystalline powder or liquid form. The brand names include “Ecstasy”, “XTC”, “E”, “X”, “Beans”, “Adams”, “Love Drug”, “Hug Drug”, “Scooby snacks”, “Snowball” etc.

According to 2012 and 2015 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of youth drug-use trends, the prevalence rates of synthetic cannabinoids use for 12th, 10th and 8th graders was 11.4 percent, 8.8 percent and 4.4 percent respectively in 2012[7]. The data puts synthetic drugs as the second most frequently used illegal drug among high school seniors after marijuana. Luckily, in 2015, this prevalence rate has declined to 5.2 percent, 3 percent and 4 percent respectively[9].

  • Regulation Loopholes

Current regulation has failed to keep pace with the introduction of new synthetic drugs. While Congress and the Administration have taken important steps to ban many synthetic substances at the Federal level (see table below), manufacturers have been able to circumvent these laws by altering the substance and changing the chemical formulas in their mixtures.

Table: Government Efforts to Ban Synthetic Drugs

  • The Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986: Allows many synthetic drugs to be treated as controlled substances if they are proven to be chemically and/or pharmacologically similar to a Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substance.
  • Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act: Enacted in 2012, this bill permanently places 26 types of synthetic cannabinoids and stimulants into Schedule I (most restrictive) of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).  It also doubled the maximum period of time that the DEA can administratively schedule substances under its emergency scheduling authority, from 18 to 36 months.
  • In 2016, at least 43 states have taken action to control one or more synthetic cannabinoids. Prior to 2010, synthetic cannabinoids were not controlled by any State or at the Federal level.  In addition, at least 44 states have taken action to control one or more synthetic stimulants.

Except for 26 types of synthetic cannabinoids and stimulants, the DEA has exercised its emergency scheduling authority to control five types of synthetic cannabinoids into Schedule I from 2011 to 2012. In 2012, four of these substances were permanently designated as Schedule I substances under the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act; the remaining substance was permanently placed into Schedule I by DEA regulation. In 2013, DEA scheduled three more types of synthetic cannabinoids, temporarily designating them as Schedule I substances.

While the scheduling of synthetic substances is increasing, new synthetic substance products are also rapidly expanding.  According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), 51 new synthetic cannabinoids were identified in 2012, compared to just two in 2009. In 2012, 31 new synthetic stimulants were identified, compared to only four in 2009, and in 2012, 76 other synthetic compounds were identified, bringing the total number of new synthetic substances identified in 2012 to 158[10].

In short, new synthetic drugs substance products are rapidly proliferating and the formulas are unpredictable, making effective regulation difficult.

CADCA’s Position

CADCA supports legislative efforts to combat the abuse, manufacture, and sale of these increasingly available and dangerous synthetic drugs. In 2015, Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA) introduced S. 36, The Protecting Our Youth from Dangerous Synthetic Drugs Act, which would prevent synthetic drugs from circumventing federal laws by creating an interagency committee that can quickly schedule and update the federal list of banned synthetic substances. CADCA supports this legislation, along with the House companion bill (H.R. 4229) introduced by Congressman Katko, in addition to broader efforts aimed at combating synthetic drug use and abuse.

CADCA is actively involved in education, advocacy, and legislative efforts to improve efforts aimed at preventing synthetic drug use among youth. To learn more about what CADCA is doing to address this problem click here.